Saturday, December 29, 2012

Wow, I'm Lucky

I'm sitting in a hotel room outside of Washington, D.C., and I'm sitting in a comfortable chair as I reflect on moving experience. Because of my wife's job--she meets, greets, and takes care of speakers for her company (as well as doing many other things that only an amazingly smart and competent person like her could do)--I got to sit in on a presentation by Jonathan Kozol. Yes, that Jonothan Kozol. Champion of children's dignities and educations. He spent parts of an hour talking about what type of school kids deserve, and I was aware every minute of the presentation that that's exactly the school I teach in--the type of school far too few students have access to.

Teachers and students should interact meaningfully every day--in small groups and one on one. They should share stories, ideas, poems. Here's a poem I wrote this fall and felt lucky enough to share with my students (as they shared their poems with me) a couple weeks ago:

Serious Work Happens on the Flattest of Tables

It is important that the table is flat.
On the table, serious work happens,
and one needs to keep one’s papers in order.
Imagine a classroom

where the tables weren’t flat!
Maybe they all had three legs instead of four!
Papers slipping off desks like sheets of ice
crashing to the floor!
Pencils sticking in the ground like wayward arrows!
What a disaster!
But maybe I prefer a slanted table.

I know what I was trying to get at as I wrote this poem (perhaps not successfully, I don't know), and Mr. Kozol just articulated it poignantly. 


Friday, December 7, 2012


With the release of How I Got Rich Writing C Papers less than a month away, I've posted a couple reviews of the book in the, you guessed it, Reviews section of this blog. Take a look and enjoy.


Sunday, November 11, 2012

To the Presses!

On Friday morning, How I Got Rich Writing C Papers was sent to the printers. It's a book I'm awfully proud of. (Okay: I've been proud of all three of my books.) What began as a story and became my Master of Arts in Teaching capstone project is now a Young Adult novel--one that not only tells what I hope is a compelling story that will make you laugh but also teaches readers a thing or three about writing for school and anywhere else.

Anyway, the book's due to hit shelves (yours?) in January. You can preorder it here or here. I'm an English teacher, writer, and sentence-enthusiast, and so I've read an awful lot of books on writing. I don't think anything remotely similar to my new book elsewhere exists: A book about writing for young adults that is a work of fiction and, at the same time, often a no-holds-barred, ever-honest account of what it takes to write thoughtfully and engagingly. My hope, every step (word, sentence, page, what have you) of the way was to honor the creative but deliberate process from which our best writing comes.

I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I often did writing it.


Saturday, October 6, 2012

Oh, and hey! Anyone want to (p)review my book?

Two posts in one day? I know--I'm prolific, right? My next book, How I Got Rich Writing C Papers, a Young Adult novel that is also a text for writers, is moving toward publication. I thought I'd update the three or four people who sometimes read this blog.

A week ago, I completed penultimate author edits. In the next monthish, my editor will complete her final edits, and then I'll get one last look at the book before it goes to the printers and, in January, is available for purchase. Actually, it's available for preorder now (here Barnes & Noble or here Amazon, where you can see the final cover).

Several teachers from around the country have read and agreed to review the book. My hope, of course, is that it ultimately gets into the hands of teenage writers, to whom the books speaks. If you're interested in previewing the book, and you have a way to connect with teenagers or with teachers, let me know. I may be able to get you an advanced reading copy, which isn't quite as cool as the final deal, but it's still something. Anyway, let me know (by e-mailing me at


Big News in Books


9.27.12 marked a big day in the world of book publishing. What? J. K. Rowling's new book came out that day? Oh, yeah. I do want to read that. But that's not the day's big news. What is?

On 9.27.12, Adam Gidwitz' followup to A Tale Dark and Grimm hit shelves! The new title: In a Glass Grimmly. On Monday, after a day of teaching, I biked to the nearest Barnes and Noble to pick up my copy. I had more fun reading that first book--Dark and Grimm, I mean--than I did probably any other book in the last couple years. I e-mailed Gidwitz afterward, in fact, and told him I wished I'd written his book. It's funny, dark, smart, and entertaining, and it's told with an engaging authorial confidence. So now I'm half through with In a Glass Grimmly. So far, so good. Anyway, thought I'd share.

Oh, and while at Barnes and Noble I read the first chapter of Rowling's new book (The Casual Vacancy), as well, and was tempted to keep going. Don't worry, Ms. R.: I'll read the rest of it, too.


Saturday, September 22, 2012

I'm not the same person I was last week


I just finished Nicole Krauss' startlingly beautiful, insightful, flexible novel The History of Love. It got me to thinking about how each time I read a masterfully told story my life changes. I don't know exactly what that means. It has something to do with my perspective. My point of view. With how I look at the world that afternoon and beyond.  With how the world appears to me. With how I approach conversations, my teaching, my writing. It's one of my very favorite parts of reading.


Saturday, August 18, 2012

Bart's Screw

I want to relay a story I heard yesterday. My wife heard from a business colleague that he and his son were at a car dealership recently when his son reached down and picked a screw off the asphalt. "Look, Dad," he said, extending his cupped hand, "it's Bart's Screw!"

As a no-name author of children's books, well, that's the kind of story that makes me smile. Young man, thanks for taking my story with you.


Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The (probably) final cover!

Here's what my next novel (this one's for young adults), How I Got Rich Writing C Papers, will look like when you pull it off a shelf in January:

Not bad, eh?

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Jokes and Poetry

My English teaching colleagues and I are constantly looking for great poems. Often, we like them to be short and quickly engaging. We use them as shared texts at the beginning of lessons. I've been writing jokes recently, and it occurrs to me that poems and jokes carry many of the same qualities: voice, pacing, and a strong pay off at the end. So I just tried out my theory. I took a Jerry Seinfeld joke and played with the formatting, turning it into a free-verse poem. I think the theory holds up. Take a look:

Dogs Are the Leaders of the Planet
Jerry Seinfeld

Dogs are the leaders of the planet.

If you see two life forms,
one of them’s making a poop,
the other one’s carrying it for him,

who would you assume is in charge?

*Joke retrieved from Lines manipulated by Andy Hueller.

Monday, July 16, 2012

How I Got Rich Writing C Papers

Last week, I received the advance reader's copy (ARC) of my YA novel/writing text How I Got Rich Writing C Papers. Here's a picture of smiling me with the book. While in the final edition (out in January 2013--that's right, seven months away!) there won't be a dorky cartoon guy in the middle, this is pretty much what the book will look like. That makes Cedar Fort (the publisher) three for three in designing very cool covers and layouts for my books.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Just Say No to Comma Splices (if you want to, anyway)

Hueller Writing Fun Part 1: Comma Splices
This post kicks off what I hope will be an ongoing series of writing lessons. In each of this series’ posts, I’ll share something I’ve learned about writing, and I’ll try to do it in an engaging way. (You’ll also find a great deal of writing instruction in my YA novel How I Got Rich Writing C Papers, due out January 2013). I start the series now, during the summer, because we don’t write during the school year only; we all write every day for myriad audiences: notes to friends and parents, e-mails, Facebook messages, tweets, and on and on and on.

Before I begin, let me say this: There are no unbreakable writing rules. Practiced, nimble writers stick to what we call rules until those rules don’t serve them, and then they abandon the rules for a sentence or two or three. Still, you do want to know what a reader expects, right?

Okay. For my first post I’ll tackle the comma splice. This, comma splicing, is something writers of all ages and abilities do, and when it’s not intentional and purposeful, it makes a reader’s job more difficult. That’s the kind of stuff we all, as writers, want to avoid most of the time.

So: A comma splice happens when you have two independent clauses, which are clauses that could be sentences all on their own, smashed into the same sentence and separated by a comma only.

Like this:

LeBron won his first championship, he earned many critics’ respect.

See the comma splice? “LeBron won his first championship” could stand on its own as a sentence, right? So could “He earned many critics’ respect.” That means a comma can’t be the only thing between these two clauses.

Watch this clip from Star Wars as illustration of my point: In the clip, you’ll see two walls closing in on our heroes. Think of these walls as independent clauses. Our heroes try to keep them apart with a comma (a strange metal bar thing they find in the compactor with them), but the comma isn’t strong enough, on its own, to keep the walls/independent clauses apart.

It’s just not what a comma does. A comma’s great at separating stuff in a list (e.g., “Now LeBron has won three MVP awards, an Olympic gold medal, and an NBA Championship”). It can also help us get from a dependent part of a sentence to the independent part that can stand on its own.

Like this:

When LeBron won his first championship, he earned many critics’ respect.

See the word When? That tells the reader that there needs to be more to the sentence than just the first clause, which mean the first clause (i.e., “When LeBron won his first championship”) is dependent. It depends on another clause. In this case, then, the comma works perfectly, sitting between the dependent part of the sentence and the independent part. Of course, if you flip this sentence around, you really don’t need a comma at all:

LeBron earned many critics’ respect when he won his first championship.

Why not? Well, it has a lot to do with the feel and momentum of the sentence. In this case, you’ve already articulated the main, independent part of the sentence and it doesn’t feel right (does it?) to stop before getting to the clause that enhances that point. In “When LeBron won his first championship, he earned many critics’ respect,” the comma feels necessary because the reader has to wade through the dependent part of the sentence before arriving at the independent part. That’s how this makes sense to me, anyway.

You could write it this way, as well:

LeBron won his first championship, earning many critics’ support.

In this case you’ve removed the subject “he” from the second part of the sentence and changed the verb to an –ing form. That means the second part is now a phrase instead of a clause (a clause needs some kind of action, which is called a predicate, and a subject to perform that action).

You have (at least) three other options, if you’d like to keep the same words you began with.

First, you could use a period:
LeBron won his first championship. He earned many critics’ respect.

Second, you could use a comma and a conjunction (For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So):
Lebron won his first championship, and he earned many critics’ respect.

Third, you could use a semicolon:
LeBron won his first championship; he earned many critics’ respect.

Which version do you like best? Of these three, I might choose the third option, as it doesn’t feels so compartmentalized as the first and removes the word “and,” which doesn’t feel right to me here because it suggests a chronology (first this happened, and then this happened) that I don’t believe exists, given that LeBron earned his critics’ respect while winning his first NBA championship. Of course it depends on the form of the piece and on my audience, too. If I was asked to give a short play-by-play summary, I’d go with the period. If these thoughts fit into a longer piece, I’d go with the semicolon. It’s all about feel. The best part? You don’t need to agree with me. You get to make these decisions for yourself every time you sit down to write.

If you rewatch the Star Wars clip, you’ll notice that C-3PO and R2-D2 (the robots) are hustling about the control room trying to get their friends and that pathetic metal bar/comma in the trash compactor some help. When R2 shuts the power down in the compactor, he grammatically gives the bar/comma either a conjunction like “and” or dot on top to make it a sturdier mark of punctuation—a semicolon. Or maybe he disregards the bar/comma and replaces it with a period.

The moral? Don’t let scrawny commas splice your sentences! Commas serve many noble purposes; just don’t allow them to make your reader’s job more difficult.

Monday, July 2, 2012

I wrote a poem

just now. Thought I'd share:

Sidewalk Chalk

 truly becomes
adult (as awful
that must be)
he chooses
  to bounce
 hopscotch grids
draw in chalk
the sidewalk.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Writing Guide Review

I recently ran into a new writing guide, Write of the Living Dead, by Araminta Star Matthews, Rachel Lee, and Stan Swanson. As a now veteran English teacher as well as writer of my own writing guide (though mine’s a YA novel: How I Got Rich Writing C Papers*), I get to weigh in on what I see of value in Living Dead. Lucky me, there’s a lot to see.

My Review
I’ve encountered countless writing guides in my day. MLA has one. So does APA. Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style sits on many writers’ bookshelves (including my own), reminding them of language’s purpose and power. Lynn Truss complains (convincingly) about bad grammar in her Eats, Shoots, and Leaves. Stephen King combines compelling memoir with style and publication advice in his On Writing. Karen Elizabeth Gordon gothically pulls apart and puts back together the English language in her Transitive Vampire grammar books. Diana Hacker provides examples of strong style and formatting in her much-used-in-schools The Bedford Handbook. The list goes on and on. Well, now we have a scary-good addition to this esteemed list. Matthews, Lee, and Swanson’s Write of the Living Dead borrows Gordon’s dark outlook and then pulls off an impressive feat, combining elements from other successful writing guides to create a comprehensive manual that covers everything from writing process to style to mechanics to format to genre (story, poem, essay, e-mail, resume, and more!) to publication, all in dark, bloody good fun. The setup: Each chapter is narrated by a different undead character dealing with a zombie apocalypse. Teachers of writers in high school, college, and beyond will find one helpful, engaging example and explanation after another. (My favorite chapter title? The sixth: “Persuasive Writing or Please Can I Eat Your Brain: A Zombie’s Guide to Writing Persuasively.”) In the first chapter, Reginald Spittoon (an author hurrying to write his chapter before his zombie bite becomes an urge and new identity that overtake him) provides an example of an effective opening to an essay—a challenge, more specifically: "The hunting and slaying of vampires is inhuman and should be outlawed. According to existing laws, there is nothing wrong with taking a sharp wooden stake and pounding it cruelly through the heart of creatures that, in many cases, possess more intelligence than their living brethren" (21). You’ll find full model essays in there, too. Write of the Living Dead’s engaging points of view and sense of humor make each chapter’s teaching all the more approachable and exciting. I’m excited to share this fresh (or rotting, decaying, and rancid?) new voice with my students.

*Not bad for shameless promotion, eh?

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Cal and Dizzy, Skipping and Flying to Baltimore


I'll be in Baltimore, Maryland for a family wedding this weekend, and Barnes and Noble thought this a fine opportunity for an event. I'll be at the Power Plant B&N, right in the Inner Harbor, beginning at 2:00 Saturday afternoon, June 23rd. Come join me as I read from Skipping Stones, sign my name inside books, and answer any questions you might ask. Yes, I said any. I wrote it, and now I can't take it back. Just take it easy on my, okay?

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Release Date

This will be a quick update. I recently learned that my YA novel/text for writers--now titled How I Got Rich Writing C Papers--will hit shelves in January 2013. Yay! Let's hope it finds its way to lots of readers who enjoy it and find it valuable.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

And News!

While I'm blogging today, I better mention that the YA novel/writing text I've tentatively titled An Essay Is Like a Burrito. Seriously. is all set to go. In consultation with the publisher and my editor, I made some revisions over the past month that, I believe, improve the book for readers, and now it's on to the next stage in the process. The publisher even has illustrations from the talented Daniela Tiedemann. I don't know about a publication date yet.

A Little Patience Goes A Long Way

Near the end of last summer, my gasoline-powered lawnmower stopped starting. I'd had it in the shop a month earlier, and by this second work stoppage, I'd had enough. I called it quits, buried the lawnmower beneath leaf bags at the back of my garage, and returned to my human-powered push mower.

This spring, I've mowed my lawn several times, each time with the push mower. I actually enjoy this process more--it's just that my lawn doesn't end up looking as uniformly buzz cut even though pushing that human-powered contraption takes triple the time. And so today, as I find my time crunched by all the expectations of an English teacher in May, I decided it was time to give the gasoline-powered mower another shot, just for the heck of it. At first, it wouldn't work. I yanked on the cord again and again. Nothing doing. I wasn't ready to give up this morning, however. I poured in a little gas. Three times I pushed the little red button which sends the gasoline to the igniter. Still nothing. I returned to the little red button and pushed it ten more times. I yanked on the cord and . . . the engine roared to life. Mowing my lawn this morning took a third of the time.

Now why do I bring this up?

It reminds me of how writing seems to always work. I get stuck on draft and the more frustrated I get with it, the less likely it is I'll figure out where story or poem or essay goes next. So I move on to something else--something with which I do have some writing momentum--and often later (even a year later!), something inspires me to get back to the first piece and I suddenly am able to look at it with new eyes. My advice, then? Don't be afraid, in your writing, to use a different lawnmower for a while. Eventually you'll be ready to give the first one another shot.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Butcher: Another Winner

A couple days ago, I wrote about Bozzelli's, a small Italian place outside of Washington, D.C., that passed my Chipotle Burrito Test. For more on the formula I use to assess any eatery, see my previous post.

Today, my wife and I, now in New Orleans for her business, walked a couple blocks to a place called Cochon Butcher. It's a sandwich shop (and much more), and it was so busy it could barely hold all the people crammed between its walls. It was busy for good reason. For $11, I ate a lamb sandwhich with cucumbers, mint, and pepper aioli, plus a side of housemade potato chips. While this cost me more than a Chipotle burrito, it's in the ballpark, and while nothing tastes better than Chipotle, when do I ever get to eat a lamb sandwhich, a tender, juicy one at that? And housemade potato chips? We have another winner on our hands.


Friday, March 23, 2012

The Chipotle Burrito Test

Those of you who know me well have a sense of how fond I am of a Chipotle burrito. I believe it's likely the greatest food man has ever concocted, and I even say as much in my forthcoming book, a YA novel that is also a writing text.

Some of you even know about the formula I apply when assessing the quality of a restaurant's food. I ask myself two questions:

1. How close was the food to being as tasty as a Chipotle burrito?
2. How close was the price to the $7 I spend at Chipotle?

I assume, always, that the food at any other restaurant won't be as good as Chipotle's and that it will cost more. The questions, then, are how much worse is the food? and how much more will I spend?

I had a particularly awful food experience at a downtown (Minneapolis) bar and eatery, for instance. My wife and I ended up paying $90 for food that was pretty good but not extraordinary. (Our company committed the sin of ordering appetizers, as well--we must have spent $20 or so on pita bread and hummus--which didn't help things.) So we were paying to be downtown and in a trendy place--neither of which appeal to me as much as delicious food at a low cost.

Recently, I'd begun to lose hope that really terrific restaurants can be found all over.

But today, I found a winner. I'm in Crystal City, Virginia today and tomorrow with my wife. It's a tiny spot four miles south of Washington, D.C. Debbie's working a conference, and I'm writing, writing, writing in the hotel room. I have another week with my third novel (the one described earlier in this post) before I hand it over to the publisher. Needing a break--a time to leave the room, walk, be alone with my thoughts as they swam--and feeling a craving for a slice of pizza, I Googled and found a small Italian place 450 feet from our hotel. It's name? Bozzelli's.

When I got to Bozzelli's, I saw, written in chalk, that a slice of pizza would run me $2.25 cents. I asked for a recommendation, pepperoni or sausage, and the guy at the counter (on the phone and not paying much attention to me) said pepperoni. So I ordered a slice and he asked me for $3. That seemed a pretty steep tax, but then again the total cost was only $3 and he was clearly busy, so I accepted my slice in a box, paid the money, and stepped outside to a high table on the sidewalk. When I opened the box, I saw two slices, a pepperoni and a cheese. I stepped back into the establishment, caught the guy at the desk's eye, and said, "You gave me two slices?" He was still on the phone, not to mention helping another customer in front of him, but he cradled the phone on his shoulder long enough to give me a thumbs up and wave me back outside.

So, let's apply the formula:

1. How close was the food to being as tasty as a Chipotle burrito?
Very. Again, I'm not sure anything every quite gets there, but the pizza was floppy and cheesy, the sauce flavorful but not so much that it overwhelmed the other ingredients.

2. How close was the price to the $7 I spend at Chipotle?
Less than half the price! In 2012, I spent $3 on a meal!

Not only that, but the guy at Bozzelli's represented the best kind of service--the kind that looks out for me without trying to charm.

I wanted to share my excursion with you. If you're ever in Crystal City, stop over and grab a slice.

And now, back to my manuscript.


Sunday, February 5, 2012

Working on Book 3

It's been a long time since my last post. I've been busy teaching, writing, and coaching. In the next couple months, I'll send my publisher a finished, revised draft of my third book--a young adult novella that is also a text for writers. I used to call it How to Get Rich Writing C Essays (And How to Write A Essays if You Want to Do That, Too). Right now, I'm calling it An Essay Is Like a Burrito. Seriously. Whatever the title, it's narrated by a senior in high school who has made it rich writing essays for his classmates and charging them for his services. I (for one) think it's hilarious. I hope it's both compelling and useful.

More later.